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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
A recent JRC article that maps copper (Cu) concentration in European Union topsoils finds that vineyards, olive groves and orchards have the highest concentration levels of all land use categories.
The study concludes and land use and management are the major cause of changes in soil Cu concentrations, and highlights the need for more sustainable, environmentally aware and soil friendly land management practices in order to limit the environmental and health risk associated with high copper concentrations in vineyards.
The study analysed 21 682 soil samples gathered as part of the EU-funded Land Use and Coverage Area frame Survey (LUCAS) to investigate copper distribution in the soils of 25 European Union Member States.
It found that Cu concentration was influenced not only by topsoil properties, land cover and climate, but also by agricultural management practices, such as the use of copper as a fungicide. Other anthropogenic sources of copper concentration include liquid manure (mainly from pigs), sewage sludge, atmospheric deposition, mining activities, local industrial contamination and particles from car brakes. This, combined with soil properties such as high pH, soil texture (organic carbon and clay), and humid climate conditions, has led to high levels of copper accumulation in the soils of vineyards and tree crops.
Vineyards were found to have almost three times the average soil Cu concentration (49.26 mg/kg compared to the overall average of 16.85 mg/kg), followed by olive groves (33.49 mg/kg) and orchards (27.32 mg/kg).
About 1.1% of the all of the soil samples were found to have higher copper concentrations than the indicated threshold of 100 mg kg-1. In vineyard soils, around 14.6% of the sample have concentrations higher than the threshold. The highest average Cu concentration was found in French vineyards, for which almost half of the samples were found to have values greater than 100 mg/kg. The Cu concentration in vineyards was also found to be quite high in northern Italy (at 87.37 mg/kg).
Risk to human and environmental health
Soil contamination can pose a significant risk to human health. Micronutrients such as copper are particularly relevant as they accumulate in plant tissues. Excess copper can result in liver disease and neurological problems. In addition, the high concentration of copper may cause environmental problems such as water contamination and loss of soil biodiversity.
While copper is essential for plant growth, the extensive use of copper has been to combat mildew in vineyards in the past decades has led to accumulations of Cu in vineyard soils and groundwater.
The maps of copper distribution, which were developed based on the LUCAS topsoil database, environmental conditions, soil properties and anthropogenic activities, represent the most comprehensive state of the art for topsoil copper in the EU.